Remembering Srebrenica’s 2023 Theme: Together We Are One

Every year, Remembering Srebrenica selects a theme that reflects an aspect of the genocide that needs to be commemorated, but also speaks to communities here in the UK.

The theme for 2023 is ‘Together We Are One’.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is renowned as being a melting pot of cultures and identities in which Muslims, Christians and Jews amongst others have lived side by side for centuries. This is reflected by the fact that the capital Sarajevo is known for being the “Jerusalem of Europe” as the only European city to have a Mosque, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church and Synagogue in the same neighbourhood.

However, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, leaders playing on identity politics rose to power across the region. Ultra nationalist forces promoted hatred and division in order to create a greater Serbia, filled only with ethnically pure Serbs. One of the most well known integrated societies in Europe imploded as a result, with neighbour turning against neighbour as the most powerful military in the region, the Bosnian Serb forces, swept to power, sending Muslims and Croats from villages in the north and east to concentration camps, and slaughtering thousands of others.

Photo Credit: Richard Vize

Between 1992 to 1995, an inhumane plan was executed to ethnically cleanse Bosniak Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Genocide was therefore a planned systematic and industrialised murder of just under 100,000 Muslims, displacement of two million people and the genocidal rape of up to 50,000 women simply because of their Muslim identity. In the space of just a few days in July 1995, over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered and buried in mass graves in Srebrenica in what Judge Fouad Riad from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia described as ‘truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history’. 

The genocide at Srebrenica is an act that may seem far removed from our day-to-day experiences and be seen as irrelevant to our immediate lives in the UK. The aim of the theme for 2023 will be to highlight the fact that the conditions for genocide are built on a climate and culture which allows hatred and extremism to breed resulting in the dividing and fracturing of communities.

The flourishing of such hatred and extremism can gradually escalate from inflammatory rhetoric to attacks, persecution and even extermination as seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The theme will therefore underline why we must combat such divisive rhetoric by focusing on the things which unite us together as one. As one former MP Jox Cox who was murdered by a far-right extremist famously said: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

The theme will remind us of the importance of remaining vigilant against the forces of hatred that seeks to “other” groups as being negatively different by using the first steps of Gregory Stanton’s  ten stages to genocide model to illustrate this. 

These steps that seek to undermine the notion of being together as one includes classification where people are spoken about in terms of ‘us and them’ and divided on the basis of their characteristics. It includes symbolisation where names or symbols for different groups are created that may be associated with their skin colour or faith; discrimination where a dominant group uses local customs, laws, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. Dehumanisation is a critical stage where one group ‘dehumanises’ or denies the humanity of the other group and the dominant group is taught to see the target group as less than human, not belonging to their community or society. Polarisation drives the groups further apart. With the use of propaganda that strengthens divisions between groups of people.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, these steps manifested themselves in the lead up to the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995 three years before when on 31st May 1992, the Bosnian Serb authorities in Prijedor issued a decree for all non-Serbs to mark their houses with white flags or sheets and to wear a white armband to differentiate themselves as non-Serbs as well as mark them for extermination.

Royal Borough of Greenwich Guildhall event

The Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) therefore, successfully co-opted civic society through a careful and systematic process of dehumanising Bosnian Muslims so that the agents of death and their collaborators found common and easier cause in achieving their goal of ethnic cleansing. The beliefs of Biljana Plavšić, former President of Republika Srpska and convicted war criminal explains that dehumanising ideology and thinking when she said in 1994: “It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now of course with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse. It simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries the genes degraded further.”

Such anti-Muslim propaganda was instrumental in Bosnian Serbs turning against their Bosniak Muslim neighbours who were constantly referenced as ‘Islamic fundamentalists’. On the day Srebrenica fell, General Mladić spoke about gaining ‘revenge against the Turks’  and  the need to neutralise ‘Muslim terrorists.’ Throughout this period, nationalism in Croatia and Serbia became increasingly dependent on unfairly criticising ‘the other’. 

The theme will therefore seek to help people in the UK better understand the behaviours and influences around them that can either build or damage the cohesion of communities and equip them with the skills and confidence to challenge such behaviours and dismantle the foundations that allows intolerance to thrive. It will encourage people to reflect upon how we can foster an environment that helps emphasise the similarities between groups and finds common ground with people from different backgrounds instead of focusing on a single facet of their identity.

We hope that the theme will empower communities to actively challenge stereotyping, scapegoating, hate speech and dehumanising language and counter this by working towards creating a society characterised by embracing our common humanity. The theme will also provide the opportunity to focus on how coming together as one makes us stronger when it comes to addressing global challenges such as the collective effort we saw during the recent pandemic or the response of the international community in supporting Ukraine. Finally, it will underline the importance of the role that each and everyone one of us, irrespective of our background, has in all coming together as one community against hatred and division.